The release of 3,000 Taliban prisoners by President Ashraf Ghani’s administration has generated optimism about the long-delayed intra-Afghan peace talks, with the Taliban announcing Qatar’s capital, Doha, will be the first venue for their meeting. Though it remains to be seen when all 5,000 prisoners will be released by Kabul in line with an agreement signed between the US and Taliban in February, the high-level meeting between the two sides is slated to occur soon.
The US-sponsored peace talks acquired some momentum in the wake of the recent visit to the region by the special American representative for the war-torn country, Zalmay Khalilzad, who also met with the Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, on June 8. Khalilzad also paid a visit to Kabul and met with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar.
That the insurgent group has agreed to meet with Afghan negotiators is a significant milestone and may well result in the commencement of reconciliation talks to end the 19-year conflict. However, making the Taliban sit with the negotiators may be the easier part of the process. The two sides also need to work out an agenda for discussions and establish a consensus on governance issues.
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As the situation stands, they are poles apart on all crucial issues. The Taliban believe their government was toppled by the use of force and foreign military intervention in 2001, demanding its restoration. Representatives of the Kabul government maintain, however, that there is an elected administration and parliament in the country. The Taliban can become part of the country’s electoral and administrative systems if they are willing to be mainstreamed and decide to renounce insurgency.
These positions appear to be impossible to reconcile. Obviously, both sides have to show flexibility for result-oriented talks that can help end the conflict. For a host of reasons, the Taliban are not likely to give up their stance of introducing an Islamic system of governance and imply that they should be given a chance to rule the country again. This will be hard for other factions, including the representatives of the government, to accept. Kabul will stick to its position that it has the electoral mandate. From that perspective, they will consider their position to be unassailable.
On the face of it, these are the straightforward and plain assumptions, but the ground realities would dictate a different approach.
The US has a good understanding of these objective realities. If there is no meaningful outcome of the peace parleys, Washington has threatened to leave the country
President Ashraf Ghani’s government owes its continuing existence not only to the US-NATO forces but also to the financial assistance provided by the international community. Without such financial aid, it would not be able to sustain itself even for as little as three months. Furthermore, it has only limited control over its territory, roughly half of which is administered by the Taliban movement which receives revenue from there and administers courts to resolve local disputes.
The movement also takes responsibility for peace in the areas under its control. Even with the military involvement of the US, the Afghan government has not managed to defeat or dismantle the brutal Daesh outfit which continues to inflict heavy losses on innocent civilians, particularly in the capital, Kabul, and parts of eastern Afghanistan.
Large numbers of soldiers belonging to the Afghan National Army have already begun to desert their ranks. Despondency looms as economic woes affect lives. Poverty levels have accentuated, causing misery and pain across the country. The rising financial hardships also explain why Afghans are joining Daesh.
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The US has a good understanding of these objective realities. If there is no meaningful outcome of the peace parleys, Washington has threatened to leave the country. That may not happen in the short term, but Americans will have to seriously consider the withdrawal option if the deadlock persists and lawlessness and insecurity increases in Afghanistan. In case of such an eventuality, the Taliban will have to assess their chances and figure out if it will be prudent to form a broad-based government in consultation with some other factions.
This uncertain situation, which has significant risk of descending into chaos, can be avoided only if the US brings pressure to bear upon the Kabul administration to accept the formation of an interim government headed by Taliban which also includes leaders of other ethnic groups and political factions.
For the sake of the country’s unity, integrity and for avoiding more bloodbath, the current Afghan leaders will have to swallow the bitter pill. The country’s institutions, fragile as they are, may nonetheless be sacrosanct; but the unity of the country is even more sacred.
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Hopefully, these ground realities will compel all stakeholders to consider the supreme interests of Afghanistan rather than their partisan interests. For that to happen, the US will have to draw some red lines that no one is allowed to cross.
Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade. The article originally appeared at Arab News Pakistan Edition and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.